Jorma Kaukonen, right, and Jack Casady, formed Hot Tuna in the '70s, as a spinoff from their regular gig with Jefferson Airplane. The two musicians have managed to keep Tuna alive all these years because of a non-corporate approach to their musical partnership.

Kaukonen’s Hot Tuna
swings through islands

The guitarist has another former
Jefferson Airplane star with him


Acoustic Hot Tuna

With Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Barry Mitterhoff

>> 7 p.m. Thursday: Kauai War Memorial Hall Theatre in Lihue. Admission: $30 ($25 advance). Call 808-241-6623.
>> 9 p.m. Friday: Hawaiian Hut, Ala Moana Hotel. Admission: $30 ($25 advance). Call 941-5205.
>> 5 p.m. Saturday : Ohana Keauhou Beach Resort in Kailua-Kona. Admission: $30 ($28 advance). Call 808-322-3441.
>> 7:30 p.m. Sunday: Castle Theatre, Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. Admission: $30 ($25 advance). Call 808-242-7469.

The years roll by, things change. Jorma Kaukonen's favorite guitar is a 1936 Gibson design -- "I'm a Gibson nut!" -- a pure masterpiece of acoustic clarity when played in the living room. But when he's performing for the folks, he uses a Gibson J-160 remake, with (for you guitarists out there) a buried transducer and humbucking pickups so the sound can be, well, louder.

When Kaukonen was in the islands last, it was a third of a century ago. He was part of the seminal San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane. "Oh, we were big rock stars. We had a big house to stay in and rented dune buggies and stayed out all night," recalled Kaukonen. "We lived very high."

Things change. This time, Kaukonen plans to quietly explore all of Hawaii with his wife after he plays several interisland gigs this week with his long-lived concept spinoff, Hot Tuna.

OK, maybe things don't change that much. The bass player with Hot Tuna is Jack Casady, also part of the snarling guitar lineup that was Jefferson Airplane. Joining them is mandolinist extraordinaire Barry Mitterhoff.

Expect to hear old songs made new again. Kaukonen is back in the buzz, thanks to the crossover success of his extraordinary "Blue Country Heart" album, a collection of woodland-tinged melancholies from the 1920s and '30s, played with intimacy and immediacy.

"Every take on that album is live, no overdubbing," said Kaukonen. "The engineer doing the mike placement on that project is a genius. Brilliant!" There are even high-fidelity editions available on Super-Audio CD and DSD that, as one reviewer put it, "have you looking around the room for real live musicians."

He leaves such stuff to the tech-heads. "I had my own little Web site," he recalls cheerfully. "And I learned just enough to screw everything up. I had to take it to a friend to fix it."

Kaukonen himself is the must-call guy for fingerpicking acoustic guitar, equal parts jazz, folk, blues, country and outer space. For those not familiar, here's a CV:

>> Born in Washington, D.C., a U.S. Foreign Service brat, Kaukonen spent his childhood living in places like the Philippines and Pakistan, absorbing music. When he settled back in the states, he began playing flattop-box country music, emulating the Carter family and Roy Acuff.

>> In high school he met up with Jack Casady and started a rock 'n' roll band while also studying fingerpicking with folk bluesman the Rev. Gary Davis.

>> At the University of Santa Clara, he met Paul Kantner while playing the folk-club circuit, and suggested Jefferson Airplane as a band name in 1965. Amidst the band's rock bombast, Kaukonen managed to slip sensitive acoustic tunes like "Embryonic Journey" onto their albums.

>> Kaukonen and Casady formed Hot Tuna in the early '70s so they could get funky. Because it's a partnership and not a corporation, Hot Tuna survives to this day.

>> Kaukonen's craft earns him wide respect, and he is often called upon to collaborate with artists like Stanley Jordan, Kenny Burrell, Manuel Barrueco, Steve Morse and Paul Simon.

BUT KAUKONEN'S favorite work is confined to a hundred rural acres in southeastern Ohio, "in Appalachian foothills, where it looks, on a map, like a little chunk of Ohio is being bitten off by West Virginia." That's where Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch operates, both his home, musician's hideaway and a boot camp for aspiring guitar players. Some of the best guitarists in the country sit down with six-string wannabes for a week of highly personalized instruction. It's the guitar amateur's edition of football fantasy camp.

"Just lucked into it," shrugged Kaukonen. "A friend had a farm he wanted to sell, and back then land was $400 an acre. Got 17 cabins, 40 students a week. Now I'm an Ohio booster, a member of the Chamber of Commerce -- I had to become an adult, never easy for a musician!

"It exceeded our wildest dreams. When I'm not on the road, I'm here all the time, and I find it very comfortable. I started teaching guitar years ago as a way of passing it on -- like the way Rev. Gary Davis did with me -- and it simply feels good to hear people play. I'm surrounded by music all the time."

When we spoke with him last week, Kaukonen wasn't sure what he'll be playing on the Hawaii tour. He's not even bringing an amplifier, and will rent one to suit his traveling Gibson J-160 and Aguilar direct box. "They give me a warm sound -- a lot of transducer pickups sound brittle to me."

As for the songs, Kaukonen already knows hundreds. "It's a deep mine," he chuckles. "Lots of great stuff. I just have to choose those I can make mine right away instead of having to play it on the road for two years. We'll make a set list but throw it out the window. Like the bluegrass boys say about audiences -- fast and loud, hold the crowd; low and slow, watch 'em go!"

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